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Posts Tagged ‘dressage’


Recently, a reader (Jamie) made a comment regarding levels of maturity in ASBs.  This happened at an interesting time; I had just had my latest discussion on the topic with a friend who is an expert on saddlebreds and their various lines.  For me, this is a very interesting topic for a number of reasons.  As an owner of a traditional saddlebred who is predisposed genetically to be slow maturing, and who truly emphasizes this tendency as an individual, I have personal experience with “slow maturation”.  Also, as a self-professed ambassador for the breed for sporthorse people, I have discipline-influenced opinions on what would be an appropriate rate of maturation.  Additionally, as an observer of the saddlebred industry I regularly note the overwhelming preference for fast maturing horses.  Finally, as a general horse person I have discussions with friends on this trend across all horse breeds, its effect on the equine industry, and exactly how one would define it as a phenomena.  So, as I stated before, this is a favorite topic of mine to kick around, and one I’m happy to encourage as an open discussion platform – at any time!

Lately, Elvis has just been looking weird to me.  I’ve been assuming it was an illusion created in part by his clip job, and in part by his lack of work and loss of muscle.  However, recently I realized that he reminded me of a sprouting two-year old, in both quantitative and qualitative ways.  He’s just gawky looking: not thin but certainly not holding weight like he has in the past, and he is overall pretty immature in appearance.  He looked more mature last summer than he does right now.  He’s also really expressing social immaturity.  His confidence is there in a general sense, but he really strikes one as a horse with a very young attitude.  The recent move has really highlighted this change.  My new barn owner has even marveled at his tendency to be behind the curve. Noting these changes have left me feeling as though I may have missed that he’s going trough another one of those big transitional phases.

In her comment to me, Jamie mentioned that her horse is also maturing at a much slower pace than his peers, enough so that his teeth are reportedly 1.5 years behind where they should be in development (per her dentist).   I think this is so interesting!  I do believe that much of this slower rate of maturation is rooted in a horse’s blood lines and, if my research and understanding is correct, the foundation lines all carry this trait.  In fact, even my non-saddlebred barn owner knows of this fact!  She has had very limited experience with saddlebreds, being instead a professional in the field of hunters and jumpers.  However, she has come in contact with a group of saddlebreds used for jumping, and was able to absorb some information through this experience.  She’s told me more than once not to worry about Elvis, that “saddlebreds are known for slow maturation”.  Maybe she’s just being polite, but I think she’s speaking from an experience with older style saddlebreds, and she helped me to adopt more of a macro level perspective.  These horses, as well as other breeds who have lines still heavy with foundation influence, will always be slower to mature physically and mentally.  It’s my opinion that this is greatly due to the different use of horses when breeds were being established: they were an integral part of work and transportation, and needed to be counted upon for long years of steady service.  Today, they are nothing more than a luxury item; their use in recreational competition has changed the template upon which they are bred in order to maximize competitive value.  Hence, faster rates of maturation which develop an edge and work to maximize profits.

One of my good friends tends to disagree with me on the concept of maturation, stating that she believes that there is no such thing as a “slow” rate of maturation. Instead, she believes, these terms are used in more of a marketing sense and have no bearing on what is really an individual-specific occurrence.  I absolutely agree that an individual horse may or may not fall within a general trend, and I also believe that this is an abused term that is used in sneaky marketing.  However, I do see enough of a difference to note that there are generally horses who mature faster or slower than others.  I’d propose though that today’s “slow maturing horse” is actually yesterday’s “normal horse”.  They stick out like oddities today, because they are surrounded by horses who have been selectively bred for around a century to gradually be taller, faster, and stronger by their second or third year.  This is a far cry from the traditional belief that horses should be started in their fourth or fifth year, since they aren’t supposed to stop growing mentally and physically until six or seven.  Today, I see a major push to manipulate rates of maturation through genetics, nutrition, and hormone intervention throughout the equine industry.  I absolutely believe that this sort of manipulation, especially when paired with early and intense (and inhumane) training is a recipe for disaster.  Rushed horses result in poor training and mental or social development at best, at worst physical and mental break-downs at the prime of their lives.  Being objectified as luxury items, they are stripped of value and typically disposed of.  Personally, I’ve witnessed this trend through the racing industry however I’m now learning about how it affects saddlebreds.

So, to bring this back full circle to Elvis, Jamie’s comments, and answer her questions.. I much prefer horses who mature physically and mentally closer to a normal rate.  I don’t really believe in getting rich through horses, as I firmly believe that nine times out of ten you have to objectify them to earn any cash.  So, I’m OK with giving them the individualized attention they need, especially since doing so often results in great dividends for me.  I won’t specifically look for a horse who appears to be physically ready to go at four, or who is in difficult physical and/or mental training before four (for me, four is the earliest I can imagine doing much of anything with a horse).  I also tend to see 16.2 as the ideal height.  In my observation, most horses who are finishing taller than this are being bred to specifically do so and, generally speaking I don’t believe that sport horses of extreme height hold up as long (on a personal note, I’d prefer to sacrifice huge height in order to retain quickness).  Certainly, young and physically mature horses can just “happen”, and I’d like to state for clarity that I view them differently.  However, in writing this blog entry I’m sharing my thoughts on general observations and how they influence my general decision-making procedure.  In my experience, there is too much risk associated with selecting horses bred to mature as fast as possible if you actually have the option to start with a youngster that is more than a rescue re-training project.  Elvis will likely be the first horse I’ve ever owned who will progress as closely to the rate of maturation noted as “normal” in texts.  Sadly, this positive trait sets him as an outcast within his breed today, and would also be considered a negative quality if he were a race horse, being pointed towards some breed futurity or the like.  Currently, he is a coming five-year old who looks like he’s maybe three.  Last I checked, he was 15.3, and that was after a big growth spurt at the end of the summer/early fall.  I think it’s fair to say that he’s been one of the most slow-growing horses his breeder has produced (which is saying something, since she prefers slow-growing horses).  He’s also arguably one of the most traditionally sport-type she’s bred, for what it’s worth.  I have a sneaking suspicion that his slow and steady pace will have him looking very different each year, and I hope that once six or seven, he’ll really come into his own.  Mostly though, I look forward to many years of life with an athletic and capable horse.

So, what are your thoughts on rates of maturation in general?  Within the breed?  In regards to your own horse?  Do you note trends within the breed influenced by breeding and management, or do you believe it’s a more random occurrence.  Do you think fast growth is important for more reasons than competition?  I’d really like to know others’ thoughts on this topic.

**Jamie, I’ll go ahead and answer the rest of your questions here.  I tried to fit it all into this post, but clearly I stuck heavily to your theme of maturation, instead of the ratio between a rider’s height and a horse’s height.  I do prefer 16.2 as a max height and, as I stated above this is mostly due to their ability to generally withstand lots of physical stress in jumping and maintain quickness.  It’s really a personal thing for me, but I do know that while not hard-and-fast it is a common guideline shared among jumpers and eventers.  As far as Elvis goes, sometimes I think I’m too tall for him, but somehow it works – probably because I’m slightly longer in my torso than my legs and Elvis has such a nice and balanced neck.  I’m hoping that as he fills out, he’ll take up more of my leg.  Mostly, I tend to worry more about my weight ratio with horses when I ride them.  I’ve ridden some pretty short horses, but they were well-built and didn’t seem to notice me up there.  Sure, I probably looked silly… but I have a thing for ponies 😉 .  With you at 5″11, unless your horse is as narrow as a rail and with a shallow heart-girth, I bet you are just fine for your horse.  Elvis and I barely “acceptable” according to most hunters, and at the edge of the spectrum for most jumpers.  Eventers wouldn’t care, and dressage people may or may not think that we match.  So, it’s really all relative and boils down to how subjective you or your sport is.

Oh, and thanks for inspiring this post!

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Well, yesterday Elvis began a new chapter in his life: we moved him to his new home in our soon-to-be new city of residence.  The day started out a bit dicey with unexpected weather.  I had checked the NOAA forecast and radar multiple times Sunday night and Monday morning, and I was prepared for some showers.  I wasn’t, however, prepared for the flurries that looked out-of-place while we were having our coffee, or the downpour of frozen rain that heralded our approach to the barn.   I was pretty nervous about the conditions worsening, especially since I had never trailered Elvis before and we were facing the tail end of rush hour traffic.  Fortunately though, by the time we had finished our final preparations the clouds parted and we actually had sunshine.

We ended up leaving a bit after predicted, partly because my barn owner and another boarder were there to say goodbye to Elvis and I.  This was such a nice surprise, and it made me realize (again) how much I’ll miss our small barn community.

I collected Elvis, swapped his blanket for a cooler, put on his shipping boots, and proceeded to load him.  I wasn’t sure how he’d do, as we’d never officially tried the trailer out.  I was so happy to see him calmly walk up to it and step right on.  He stopped once and took a step or two back, but it was a half-hearted attempt which was cut short with one sharp look from me.  Then, he proceeded to march right on but not before he paused once more, this time to reach out to Carla (the barn owner) and give her a nuzzle as if to say goodbye.  Then, once on he stood while I clipped him in and Carla closed up the trailer behind him.  We did our final door and light check and then, punctuated by a single and demanding stomp, we were off!  I was so proud to be driving my very own “rig”, with my very own horse inside, and accompanied by my husband.  We had a three and a half hour journey ahead of us.  Travel went very well with no fussing from Elvis and no trouble from impatient city drivers.

Once we arrived at our destination, we pulled onto the convenient circle-drive around the barn and parked.  My husband and I easily and quickly unloaded Elvis who once off the trailer, looked around briefly, and then noticed the grass underfoot.  Nicole, our new barn owner, greeted us and showed us to our stall.  Elvis walked into the barn like he owned the place and we left him in his stall to relax for an hour or so while we parked and unloaded the trailer.

Nicole’s place is really great.  It’s a very nice barn with loads of amenities, and she runs it like a tight ship.  She’s a professional and this is her professional career – that much is clear right away.  She designed her property for efficiency and she runs it in such a way that you can tell she takes pride in her work.  I really look forward to meeting the other boarders, and beginning some lessons with Nicole and the two dressage instructors.

After we put our things away, Nicole suggested turning Elvis out in his new paddock.  I was a little nervous about turning him out so quickly, but I trusted her judgement: she had a field full of low-on-the-totem-pole horses who acted as her regular welcoming committee.  So, I took Elvis over to visit these horses and they did indeed seem very mild.  After turning him out there was a lot of squealing, fake striking, and a few kicks.  Elvis was booted in the hamstring once but that was all that I saw, and the rest of the kicks were pathetically harmless.  Elvis was shunned by the group’s lead horse for about thirty minutes, during which time he became friends with the herd’s loner, but by the time I left the herd boss and Elvis were both grooming each other.

We plan on going back later this week to check on him, but I’m confident that he’s in the right place.  In fact, as we were driving away I asked my husband what he thought and how he felt.  He told me he wasn’t concerned in the slightest, and I realized I felt the same way.  I’m sad to be leaving my friends, and change always makes one nervous, but I’m excited at the same time to be in this new farm with new opportunities, and with the chance to make a new friend in my barn owner and the other boarders.

Below are photos of the day.  Elvis has lost a lot of muscle tone with his lack of riding and general movement due to the weather, just look past that for now.

Elvis takes a look at his new home.

Beautiful Barn.

Can I sneak him into the pasture before the other horses notice?
Can I sneak him into the pasture before the others notice?

I think he was saying here: "Are you sure about this, Mom?"
I think he was saying here: “Are you sure about this, Mom?”

First Greeting.

Working things out.

The Pony Dance.

Startled that the others took off.

Left Alone.. he looks rather shocked.

Strutting his stuff.

He is totally full of himself.
Full of self confidence.

Looking for an excuse to be silly.

One of the farm’s cutest residents.

The awesome ring… it is HUGE.

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Well,  I have something special to share with you all!  About a week ago I took some photos of Elvis after having body clipped him.  This gave me the opportunity to step back and look at him for the first time in weeks without his blanket on.  At the time I was in a rush, so I didn’t see what was standing before my eyes until I was at home and flipping through my photos.  Apparently, Elvis has changed!

There are a few things that this year-long transformation illustrates, and I think it’s important that they be shared.

First, it’s the structure of the horse that matters.  I’ve spent a lot of time learning how the horse’s body works and functional conformation.  I’ve worked hard to develop an eye that can look past the surface layers, even the musculature of the horse, to see how his bones work together.  Over the years I’ve seen tons of horses passed on because prospective buyers didn’t see the horse underneath.

Second, proper work produces proper conditioning, and this can transform a horse.  Elvis still has a long way to go, he is only in the beginning stages of learning how to use his body.  Each stage presents increasing challenges in movement and form, which need more strength for development.  When done properly, the shape of the horse changes much.

Below is the photo taken by Elvis’s breeder last February, when I asked for recent shots and some video.  This photo is the one I used most to make my decision, as well as a 30 second video clip of him walking.  The photo showed his structure, and the video showed me arguably the most important gait when evaluating a horse.

Elvis, February 2009.

(Please Note:  Above photo was flipped horizontally to match the orientation of the photo below.  This is why the socks don’t “match”.)

I laugh every time I see this photo!  At first glance, he looks pretty unappealing.  However, this is Elvis today…

Elvis, February 2010. Also, one inch taller.

I sent these two photos to Elvis’s breeder, Mary.  She laughed also, and said she wouldn’t have known it was the same horse.  I also sent the photos to my good friends, who helped me evaluate him last year, they too had a good laugh!

Mary did exactly what I had requested, and provided traditional sport horse evaluation materials for me as best she could – I mean, this was during a northern Wisconsin winter!  I asked specifically for traditional conformation shots, and at least a walk video.

When I look at these photos today, I am proud of myself.  I always champion a few things: type over breed, functional conformation, and the effects of correct work based in dressage.  If I wanted to, I am sure I could find plenty of people who would argue these things with me until the cows come home.  However, I’ll never change my stance and these photos are for me, a trophy.

I can’t wait to see the changes next February brings!

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Since my last posting yesterday, I’ve spoken to my farrier.  I explained that I think Elvis’s angles are off in his feet, and that I think it is due to the freakish hoof growth he’s had the past five weeks.  With his front shoes, he obviously can’t wear down his toe, and it seems to be pulling the whole hoof forward.  With the harder ground, I’m sure this is what was making him a “not right” yesterday, especially since it was occurring on his right front, and his right front is the foot that needed the most reshaping.  I don’t recall his feet looking this way before my trip, and feel as though they grew significantly since before Christmas.  This blows my mind, especially since it is winter (and feet grow slower) but, as my BO pointed out “Elvis doesn’t follow any rules.”  So true.

So, I canceled my lesson today and maybe – just maybe – I’ll see my farrier sooner than later.  Either way we have an appointment next Tuesday.  I know he’ll set Elvis straight again – Farrier to the rescue!  Until then, I don’t see much work in our future.

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I went up to ride today partly because I just really needed some Elvis-Time, and partly because we both need to get our act together for our upcoming lesson.  Not surprisingly though, I was the only person riding!  It’s been very cold (for the southeast) lately, and I ended up riding in 28* weather.. with wind!  Fortunately though, I was sporting a new pair of Kerrits winter breeches (thanks, Mom!), as well as some other fantastic winter essentials.  I was actually comfortable!

Once in the ring we took some time to inspect the few frozen puddles; Elvis enjoyed stomping and pawing at them.  We did groundwork and then lunge work.  I think Elvis is really starting to get stronger in the canter.  During our last lesson, we really worked on getting him to slow down and hold the canter.  At first, he was only able to do it for a few strides at a good speed.  Over time though he’s gotten much better, and he looked very nice today and he was very responsive.

Our ride was fantastic.  We worked at the walk for a while doing leg yields, spirals, figure eights, surpentines, etc.  He’s really starting to reach deep into the contact, which is great!  He was round and bent nicely, and remembered the whole inside/outside rein. At the trot he was fabulous.  We had success at the same exercises, and his tempo was perfect!  It was so nice!

All in all, today was great.  I really felt as though we hadn’t been apart for so long.  At this rate we should be ready for our lesson!

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